December 22, 2013

Protecting Drivers from Icy Roads: We Have Come a Long Way

This week's snow event brought  a lot of talk about snowy and icy roads and the associated dangers. 

But there is a very positive and important story that the media has given very little attention to:  that our local roadways, and particularly the more traveled ones, are immeasurably safer today than a few decades ago when snow and ice occurs.  And as we will shall see a lot of credit goes to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and forward-thinking localized DOTs like Seattle's (SDOT). 

I got a feel for the issue when I arrived at the UW as a young professor during the 1980s.  Quite regularly I got calls from local attorneys....some from the private sector, some with the State or local government... asking for help with cases dealing with weather.  I quickly learned that the overwhelming majority of these forensic meteorology cases dealt with automobile accidents on icy roads. 

A quick check of the State's accident data base indicated that thousands of accidents and dozens of deaths each year were associated with icy roadways.   In fact, it became evident that icy roadways were the number one meteorological cause of death and injury in Washington State.   Not flooding, not windstorms, not tornadoes, but icy roads.

As I finished more and more cases, an interesting issue became apparent:  although many of the accidents were associated with poor driving (generally excessive speed during icy/snow conditions), many were associated with inadequate responses of Departments of Transportation.     Many plow/sander drivers were inadequately trained (for example, not understanding that bridges ice up first), weather information on or near key roadways were lacking, and equipment/personnel were often inadequate.  Injured parties were winning huge settlements from the State and local DOTs.   We could do better...muchbetter.

Perhaps the most notable example of a very inadequate response to snow and ice occurred in Seattle during December 2008.  What happened was close to criminal:  avoidance of salt, rubber tipped blades on plows, pushing the snow into the center of the street, among other sins.   Much of Seattle was impassable.    Rutted, ice-clogged roads certainly cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars, large numbers of accidents, and unnecessary accidents and injuries.  My friends at WSDOT  shook their heads when I asked them about the city's response.  Mayor Nickels lost his job as a result.

Seattle December 2008:  A terrible tragedy was narrowly avoided.

But the situation today is extraordinarily better today and I would like to tell you how.   During the 1990s WSDOT put substantial efforts into improving their ability to deal with snow and ice.  They began installing large numbers of weather sensors along major state highways (see map), part of the Road Weather Information System (RWIS) and created real-time web pages with weather information.
 Locations of WSDOT weather sensors

WSDOT provided grant support to my group and others at the University of Washington to help educate their staff in the field and to create tutorials on roadway icing (here).   And since educated motorists are safer motorists, they supported our creation of web page such as the I90 page that puts all kinds of roadway and weather information on a single web site (see graphic)

A better educated WSDOT workforce also began a program of pre-treating roadways surfaces with chemicals such a magnesium chloride, to prevent ice formation or to insure that ice does not bond to the roadway surface (and thus is far easier to remove with plows). 

It is clear that WSDOT's efforts have reduced the number of ice/snow-related accidents on major highways, certainly the number of legal cases on this subject has dropped (and I am include other meteorologists who do this kind of consulting as well).

In Seattle, the changes in the management of roadway ice/snow have been revolutionary.   Mayor McGinn (for obvious reasons!) dedicated substantial resources to ensure that the city would not be crippled by modest snow, as it had been in 2008.  He started by hiring a first rate management team as SDOT, folks that had deep experience with snow/ice management.   The amount of equipment was substantially increased and the decision was made to use salt when needed to melt roadway snow/ice.   Snowplow blades were unsheathed and aggressive pretreatment was inaugurated to prevent the unremovable ice of December 2008, and large stockpiles of sand/salt/deicer were acquired.
Seattle snowplows are ready!

Furthermore, the City put temperature sensors into critical Seattle roadways and supported the development of the SNOWWATCH web site, which brings all the snow-related weather information together for its effective use by city maintenance personnel and Seattle residents (below).

The Seattle Times was so impressed with the city's  response to the January 2012 snow event that it provided positive coverage (which it rarely did for any of Mayor McGinn's activities).  Whatever you think of Mayor McGinn, he left a legacy of greatly improved capability and responsiveness to snow events.

 The city's new approach to snow and ice removal, and particularly the use of salt, has gotten national attention, including great praise from the famous SALT GURU (click on image below).

Both WSDOT and SDOT did very well with last Friday's "snowstorm", with only minimal disruptions on major roadways.

When you couple the far better maintenance/response regarding our roadways during ice/snow situations with the improved safety of the new generation of cars (many of which have vehicle stability control with substantially reduces the changes of skidding), vehicle-related accidents related to snow and ice have clearly dropped.  There will always be folks that drive too fast for conditions and get nailed.  But improvements in prepared our roadways for snow/ice events and the professional responsiveness of WSDOT/SDOT and others should be acknowledged and appreciated.  Not only are lives  saved, but the economic value of such efforts are huge, far eclipsing their modest costs.


  1. Cliff,

    The snow storms that put Nickels out of office have NOT been repeated in Seattle since. You, of all people, should know that.


  2. Rod,
    There was no large Seattle event in Dec 2008, just a series of small ones. The Jan 2012 snow storm was as large or larger than any of them. Furthermore, there have been a number of small events (e.g., Nov 2006) that caused big problems on main roads. This did not happen in Jan 2012 or during this last event. I am sure that if the weather conditions of Dec 2008 the outcome would be very different (and for better)...cliff

  3. Sugar Beet juice is used with good affect on icy roads.

  4. Unfortunately everything has a consequence. One of the consequences of salting the road with magnesium chloride solution is that my 5 year old car is already showing rust on the underbody. With the incredible lack of car washes around here I predict the NW will become the new automotive rust belt in 10 years.

    Cliff you are right that stability control will help. Unfortunately few people around here understand the importance of tires in improving their coefficient of friction.

  5. The Salt Guru video was great for a laugh... in addition to the fact that *the guy actually exists* it was even more funny that Seattle was the main topic of his video, and NONE of his video came from the city of Seattle! The cars sliding down the hill as viewed from a cameraperson on the sidewalk was in Denver, and the one viewed from several floors up was Portland. And the video of the recently salted, slushy roadway, was in Bellevue. It just cracks me up.

    As always I appreciate your blog. Temps here in the hills above Monroe are finally warming... we had about 3" snow total from the last storm, and as of sunset tonight there were still large white patches on the ground. But with the steady rain and warming temperatures today, I'm sure it will be gone relatively soon. It always seems to hang on longer in this neck of the woods (shallow valley with a stream, surrounded by tall trees).

  6. While Mayor Nickels is frequently blamed for his handling of the 2008 snow storms he is rarely remembered for having initiated the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement in 2005 that had over 600 cities committing to reducing greenhouse emissions - and helped to inform the residents of Seattle and many other cities of the consequences of (and the need to reduce) their carbon emissions.

    While snow days are uncommon in Seattle large amounts of greenhouse gases are produced by its citizens every day. Whether the inconvenience of snow-covered roads is more important to a city than a warming climate is dependent on your priorities and perspective.

  7. John Franklin,
    I think Nickel's should have provided more attention to running the city well, versus his climate activism. There was no excuse for allowing the city to grind to a halt for such modest snow amounts. It was plain incompetence. Stopping global warming is very importance, but quite frankly the activities of the Mayor's conference are trivial compared to the huge increases in CO2 emission by China and others. And fracking is resulting in cheap carbon fuels that will be with us for generations.
    We are losing the battle and well-meaning folks like Nickels are really doing very little that makes real difference...cliff

  8. John me directly...would be better that way...cliff

  9. Cliff,

    Thank you for your response. I remember the December 2008 event, well. I drove in it all week. Nickels kept the West Seattle bridge passable every day, all week. I drove to the eastside at the end of that week, and, "woah, Nellie", as Keith Jackson would say, the roads were FAR worse than in Seattle.

    Here is a NY Times article;

    Please note, that the New York Times quotes you, Cliff.

    I doubt that our little morning slush event a few days ago made the New York Times.

    Come on, Cliff, please don't perpetuate the whining and blaming of politicians that has become so rampant of late.

    That storm in 2008 was a several day event, with sub-freezing temperatures throughout. And has not been (even REMOTELY) repeated since.

    Your fan, and I mean that,

  10. All I see in your article praising an incompetent agency is a lot of taxpayers', that's taxpayers', money being used for electronics that frankly, do not prevent accidents, nor do they save lives. ONLY DRIVERS save lives. That's where your paradigm is inaccurate. Not seat belts, not stability systems, not tires, not ABS, not air bags, etc. Furthermore, you need to do research on the dangerous traffic engineering designs being employ by FTA-DOT. The current fads in traffic design, called traffic-slowing, better called "traffic-impeding"are in reality creating bottlenecks, and where you have bottlenecks, you create traffic congestion, traffic jams, traffic accidents, wasteful gas consumption due to millions of cars SITTING-IDLING on jammed up highways (though I'm sure Democrat governors love idling cars wasting gasoline as higher gas consumption = more gasoline tax dollars), and higher concentrations of air pollution, created by slow, stalled traffic. I'm not a professor, don't have a college education, but when a quarter of your life, at 12-15 hours a day are spent on Tacoma-Seattle roads, professionally & as a commuter, and as a government employee, an insider, if you will, my observations come from a different, real life, perspective, and they are significantly different from yours. The roads are far more dangerous now, due to designs, with the ultimate goal of getting Americans out of their cars, which is wholly dishonest agenda, seeing how the powers that be travel in taxpayer financed autos & presumes that a career is of more importance than a LIFE, e.g. having a family, running errands, taking kids to extra curricular activities. Bureaucrats are out of touch with reality, not to mention, the REAL average American family. While driving buses for 20 yrs. at Pierce Transit our wet-behind-the-ears Safety & Training personnel, who replaced the old guys who had YEARS, not collectively, of experience, tried to tell us that "Americans have a love affair with their cars......and they're just going to have to GET OVER IT!" Said with disdain, no, hostility. Then I learned of the PSRC, the GMA, Growth Management Act. When I traded bus driving, due to job-related but unrecognized chronic sinusitis & newly acquired asthma, for real estate, I learned of the AGENDA of the GMA to concentrate the populace, govt employees in supervisory & management positions excluded, to the inner city ghettos that ALWAYS result from such "urban planning" despite the claims otherwise. Look at Seattle...the parks are the land of pedophiles, gangs & clueless, delusional citizens. Look at the high costs of housing, outrageous rents for ugly, non-functional housing (good for taxing the populace for more taxpayer financed housing that becomes a ghetto within a ghetto). These are just some of the issues tied to TRAFFIC, which is really not about MOVING traffic, but about creating more govt/union jobs, at the expense of the fewer & fewer taxpayers. The only thing about this whole Democrat idiotic paradigm of "managing resources-people" is that with every govt/union job created, we lose 2, sometimes 3 free market jobs. Unemployment equals more govt encumbrances, and FEWER workers to carry the higher, and higher, and higher tax burden that is the direct result, logical consequence, of managing "traffic." Ain't about traffic. But being an academic, you probably are limited in your outlook, brainwashed in faulty paradigms, and inaccurate data.

  11. We may have come a long way, but we can still mess up without much impetus. The December 2 incident of applying de-icer to the West Seattle Bridge at double the prescribed amount resulting in numerous accidents and closing the bridge despite it never actually snowing is a great example. SDOT's defensive and stonewalling response to the incident leads me to believe we still have a long way to go.

  12. John Franklin,
    I am not going to post your blog because of the unnecessary name calling, but please look at the data before you attack me. Look at Dec. 2008 snow statistics that are on the NWS web site. No day had more than 3 inches. There was no big event. Proper management of the snow should have allowed the city streets to have remained passable. You don't believe me? Please call up the SDOT folks in place now and ask them whether they could handle such an event. ..cliff


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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